Friday, November 17, 2006

Hardly a no-brainer

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." -G.K. Chesterton

Let's talk honestly about what this torture debate (or more specifically, the debate over the Military Commissions Act which authorizes the President to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions) is n was n should really have been about.

Here is an interesting piece on waterboarding that includes the reporter being interrogated by SERE instructors. The most notable line is borrowed from John McCain.

I'm categorically opposed to torture. Pretty much everyone is. The point of contention lies with what constitutes torture, and what should be permissible "coercive interrogation." I completely agree with Dershowitz; if we want to use ethically questionable methods, then let's say so and put it on the table for a fair and honest discussion of its virtues and vices. If the benefits merit its use, then what methods are acceptable, and under what circumstances?

Perhaps a reasonable debate might lead to the conclusion that it is okay to use, say, Method X only in the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Even though this scenario is extremely unlikely, such a proclamation would provide accountability. If you use Method X, you must demonstrate that the conditions specified for a ticking bomb scenario were met when you used it. Otherwise, you face the consequences of having illegally tortured someone. Regardless of whether or not you choose to accept the time bomb scenario as justification for torture, such a system would be fair in the sense that it is consistent in application and resistant to abuse.

We cannot afford to allow a single person (or secret tribunal of unidentified, unaccountable people, appointed by a single person) to make those decisions without having to specify where the lines are drawn, what methods are used, when, why, etc. Again, while I personally would vehemently oppose a law like the one above, perhaps it is in our national interest to legalize, under certain conditions, some form of what the Geneva Conventions call torture. If so, then we should codify that decision into law so that we know when it is broken! This position, revolting as I find it, is at least in keeping with our identity as a nation guided by law. And it is NOT what Bush wants. He wants a "License to Torture," without oversight and without constraint. Consider this: the phantasmal enemy sent to haunt the dreams of those who oppose Bush's policies is "Islamofascism." For those who wield this political buzzword like a club, I would like to know just what unchecked power to interrogate by unspecified means smacks of to you.

When Dick Cheney defends the MCA by stating that "a dunk in the a no-brainer" when it could save American lives, he is being dishonest in a not-so-obvious way. His official denial that he was referring to waterboarding, as well as all the fine-parsing by White House spokespeople and uber-analysis by media outlets, have done little to obfuscate the plain meaning of his comment. In fact, I suspect Cheney intended to be unmistakeable, because despite the coarseness of his words, they communicate a sentiment that many Americans can get behind: that it's okay to torture to save our own people. And therein lies the deception. He proposes a notion that is both fairly popular and also acceptable (if unpalatable) for discussion among reasonable people, in order to provide cover for a question which could never be posed honestly to the citizenry: Should one person effectively have the power to declare who is a criminal?

It's the old bait-and-switch. It is the most devious type of lie: not one of false assertion or even omission, but one of conflation. It is a tactic this administration has perfected. Cheney suggests that if you believe that saving American lives can justify torture, then you must support the MCA. Although it's only slightly more subtle then the insultingly simplistic "Support the war, or you hate the troops/love Saddam/club baby seals/are a pedophile" line, it still plays astonishingly well with the public.

Such dichotomies do not exist, and we must not capitulate to the claim that the only way to save our lives is to forfeit our liberty. I can, I should, and I always will unconditionally oppose the ceding of due process in favor of executive fiat. And this decision has NOTHING to do with the fact that I do not like or trust Bush; I would feel the same way if the powers in question were to go to the man I admire most. The problem is establishing a precedent on which this nation cannot survive. Consider the Romans enacting the suicide of their democracy by electing Julius Caesar emperor. He served Rome honorably until his death, but was eventually succeeded by a host of incompetent tyrants who destroyed history's mightiest empire. This issue is bigger than planes and bombs today, it is about avoiding our own induction into history's version of the Darwin Awards. Here's a quote that has been used an awful lot lately, but I could hardly say it's been overused, because it so desperately needs to be heeded: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." -Ben Franklin

Another important point is that interrogation methods aren't all of sudden more important since 9/11; the GCs were originally agreed upon as rules of war. In fact, several were introduced or amended in the wake of the immense bloodshed of World War II. If extracting intelligence from enemy soldiers during war won't save lots of (our) lives, then I can't imagine what will. And even in this case, when we are absolutely positive who the enemy is, and it is very likely that they have at least some useful information (since they have a much more centralized command than terrorists, who may really not know much), we still opt against those methods in favor of humanity and morality. We prosecuted German soldiers for waterboarding our boys in WWII! The fact that they were just trying to win the war for their side is no defense; such a practice was deemed inhumane and unacceptable regardless of the motivation. [Correction: It was actually Japanese soldiers that were prosecuted for torturing US soldiers, and they were subsequently executed for war crimes. Consider that the most compelling version of the ticking timebomb scenario involves nuclear weapons and densely populated areas, and you will see that we have no legal leg to stand on.]

Finally, needless to say, if we do not abide by these rules for others, they are likely to return the favor. In abandoning the Geneva Conventions, we are almost certainly subjecting our own troops to torture. Some might argue that our enemies are already failing to play by these rules. Maybe so, but in making the Convention optional, we are legitimizing that behavior. Rest assured that they will never even consider treating our prisoners humanely if we are not expected to do the same, and if furthermore there is no fear of reprisal. This is the fundamental notion upon which conventions like these rest; it's not that we don't want to reserve the right to torture, or have nukes, or pollute endlessly, we just can't allow other countries to do the same! But no longer will we have recourse to accuse and prosecute such barbarism; we have ceded that moral high ground.

Ultimately, though, all of this quasi-legal philosophy is irrelevant. McCain had it right: It's not about who they are, it's about who we are.

PS: About that last bit, I know we didn't sign Kyoto, and that our efforts at nuclear non-proliferation are hypocrisy defined (wow, are we really 0/3 on some of the most critical international agreements?), but the point is they are all good ideas . Indeed, Bush's plan to optionalize Geneva is just one manifestation of our tendency to try to hold other countries to a standard by which we are unwilling to abide, and this arrogance is largely responsible for all of the international goodwill that we have squandered. I know that a certain strain of self-styled patriot, the type more concerned with words and flags than with actions and ideas, bristles at Americans calling America arrogant. I really don't know what else you could call it.


I found a similar editorial by Dick Meyer here.
I also added the leading quotation.

Another pertinent link of Bush at a press conference discussing the act here. How loosening the standards of interpretation of the Geneva Conventions actually clarifies law is not explained. Here is Matt Lauer cornering him on torture. We clarify international law to "agree[ing] to disagree" with Amnesty International. Sounds like a good plan. He also explains that it is important we don't talk about techniques such as waterboarding, because if they are being used, confirmation of this would allow the terrorists to adapt. As Bush deftly recognizes, insane Muslim fundamentalists are notoriously capable of sprouting gills.